Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

In Which I Don’t Talk about WoW

I’ve picked up two (more or less turn-based) strategy games recently – Heroes of Might and Magic VI and Europa Universalis III. Alright, I have owned EU forever but never managed to get past the hurdle of “oh my god, so many numbers”. Now that I’ve had someone to explain the game to me (which the tutorial absolutely failed to do), I actually clocked quite a few hours. HoMM VI is the newer game with a much larger budget and I loved some of the old ones to bits, yet I spend much more time on Europa Universalis. Let’s explore why that is so for a bit. (Or you could go read about pandas everywhere else. Your pick.)

I’ll begin by saying that Heroes VI is not really a bad game. It has everything that the old games of the series had and added new features. These features aren’t generally bad either. You get actual talent trees (though they are a bit too bloated for my taste), you don’t need to have transport heroes scouring the whole map for troops to recruit every week, and you have a good/evil system (excuse me, that should read “tears/blood”) that changes your hero’s capabilities depending on your style of play. They also added a whole slew of special abilities for combat units to make fights more intricate and tactical.

Except they don’t, really. Combat is the exact same maneuvering and uses essentially the same tactics that have worked in the predecessors. All the added bells and whistles just have some incidental effects and don’t really touch on the (now incredibly outdated) game play at all. But I could have fun with some good old Heroes-style battles; I quite enjoyed King’s Bounty recently after all. What irks me about them is the feeling that the developers just didn’t care. There is no love to be found in the animation, the graphics, or the abilities. This extends past the combat system to the campaign dialogue as well. It’s all just terribly bland.

Fully voiced dialogue is nice and all, but pretty useless if the dialogue itself isn’t worth the paper it’s been written on. The same goes for combat animations as well as item and skill design. Units always use the same lame combat animations unless they get a lucky hit which will “reward” you with a zoom in on the fighting units and a couple of seconds of bad animations in close-up. You can probably turn those off, and I definitely would if I meant to spend more time on the game. It feels as if they simply took elements that worked well in other games and gave them a half-hearted, bland implementation. Don’t even get me started on the weird point systems (yes, multiples) that they have for accruing rewards outside the actual game.

Then there’s Europa Universalis. A game that has been created on a sliver of the budget that Heroes IV had (I assume) and that really doesn’t give a rats ass about presenting itself nicely. The developers might have heard about “easy to learn, hard to master” but only joined the conversation half-way through that sentence. The game is, quite frankly, a mess. Even after multiple patches and expansions, the game is buggy as hell and it doesn’t tell you about anything. Once you get the hand of it, the game is mostly about waiting and adjusting a multitude of sliders. I quite enjoy it.

Unlike the Total War series, EU focuses much more on empire management and diplomacy and completely disregards tactical battles. When two enemy armies meet, they’ll fight automatically in a rather simple combat system. You can watch the progress of the battle as a set of bars and numbers and decide to flee at some point if you wish to do so. The empire management part on the other hand is incredibly deep. Not only do you decide on what kind of research to spend your countries GDP (and how much of it to use to mint money – beware of inflation!), you also get to make a myriad of decisions around your empire, decide which advisors to hire, set support limits for your army, navy, colonial and missionary efforts, send merchants to various centers of trade, elect rulers, arrange royal marriages, convert or kill natives, deal with heretics, influence the pope and much more.

The depth of the game is part of what makes it attractive to me. It is somewhat akin to Civilization, but where Sid Meier uses rough approximations for pretty much everything, EU goes much deeper. Interested in declaring war on another nation? Then you’d better have a casus belli (a justification for war) or your empire will take a huge stability loss and other nations will hate you. Interested in colonizing the new world? I hope you have a decent explorer to send with your ships and enough investment in naval technology so that your colonists can actually reach the Americas. And do you want to support mercantilism or free trade? Quantity or quality?

Possibly the biggest draw is the amount of historical accuracy they manage to put into the game through the properties of individual nations. The game doesn’t even try to be fair, so you probably won’t see the Aztecs conquering France or similar atrocities so common in games of Civilization. That’s fine though as it allows you to choose your difficulty level (and play style) by choosing which nation to play as.

The game is certainly not for everyone, but in my case it will absolutely take precedence over the much more expensive Heroes VI. It’s a niche game for sure, but I am quite happy with the existence of such games.  Mainstreaming and lack of interest on the side of the developers have killed the Heroes series for me. Niche games might make less money, but they sure are good for us customers.